Posted on 5 September 2013

It’s called the stomach flu, but it has nothing to do with influenza. Doctor Kgaogelo Moeng, a specialist physician and gastroenterologist at Mediclinic Sandton, gives the lowdown.

In simple terms, what is gastroenteritis and what are the typical symptoms?
Gastroenteritis is the general name that given to a common yet acute condition that is characterised by abdominal cramping, diarrhoea (sometimes the stool may have blood) and, at times, vomiting.

What causes it… is it bacterial?
It can be caused by either viruses or bacteria, or due to bacteria-produced toxins in food, as in a case of food poisoning.

Is it common in South Africa and who is most at risk of getting it?
Though anyone can get it, children, the elderly and the immunosuppressed are at a higher risk. It is also a problem in areas defined by a poor socio-economic status, where there are conditions of overcrowding and poor sanitation and hygiene. We also see more cases of gastroenteritis in summer, when it’s hot.

If it’s common, is treatment fairly standard? And can it get really serious?
The basic and standard treatment involves fluid administration, orally for those who aren’t vomiting; intravenously for those who are. The priority, really, is to prevent and treat dehydration from lost fluids. We also aim to restore the electrolytes (minerals in your blood and other fluids) that may have been lost. For example, potasium salt may drop to very low levels in a case of gastro.

When the cause of the condition is viral, supportive treatment with careful administration of liquids may be all that is required. In the case of a bacterial cause, you will need antibiotics. Since little children can get dehydrated very quickly, severe dehydration can be serious, even fatal. Fortunately, an oral rehydration solution can be bought from the pharmacy or prepared by caregivers at home, by dissolving sugar and salt in cooled boiled water. Administration of these solutions to children at the first sign of gastroenteritis has been a pivotal PHC intervention, associated with a significant reduction in child mortality from gastroenteritis. Generally for adults any form of liquids such as juices, black tea, chicken broth and  water are good for rehydration and to prevent dehydration. Fortunately it takes a much longer time for dehydration to ensue in adults.

Many cases of gastroenteritis are treated successfully at the primary health-care level. Specialist care is only needed when there are complications, like severe dehydration with kidney damage or, less common, when the gastroenteritis is not resolving with treatment.

To contact Dr Moeng, email or call 011 709 2149.

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